Someone over at MGC posted the Robert Southley’s poem about the Battle of Blenheim, as part of a discussion about ordinary people doing hard duties while the Great and Powerful . . . do their thing. I bristled a little, but that’s because I have firm opinions about both sides of that conflict. So, first, the poem:
by: Robert Southey (1774-1843)
T was a summer evening, Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found, That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy, Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head, And with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he, “Who fell in the great victory.
“I find them in the garden, For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough, The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he, “Were slain in that great victory.”
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,” Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war, And what they fought each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried, “Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he, “That ’twas a famous victory.
“My father lived at Blenheim then, Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground, And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled, Nor had he where to rest his head.
“With fire and sword the country round Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then, And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be At every famous victory.
“They said it was a shocking sight After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be After a famous victory.
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won, And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!” Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he, “It was a famous victory.”
“And everybody praised the Duke Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?” Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he, “But ’twas a famous victory.”
Blenheim, fought near the town of Blindheim* on August 12-13-14, 1704. The Franco-Bavarian army collided with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire under Prinz Eugen von Savoy, and General John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The French goal was to break apart an alliance that opposed the merger of France and Spain, and to capture Vienna. The English and Dutch fought as one group, the Imperial forces as a second group.
Those of you who have read Elizabeth and Empire know blow-by-blow how the fighting went, because that’s the conflict I based the final battle on. For others, I recommend: https://www.forces.net/services/army/blenheim-battle-created-marlborough-legend. However, the web-site comes with the caveat that it is very English, and I personally would give Prinz Eugen more credit. Which does not take away from Marlborough’s genius, especially in logistics. He managed to move an army from the Low Countries all the way to Bavaria without the French noticing, at a pace that was not matched until the 1900s. The Imperials acted as the anvil for the Anglo-Dutch hammer. It helped that Eugen and Marlborough were personal friends, and had worked together before. They trusted each other implicitly. The result was one of the most impressive victories in all of the wars against Louis XIV.
As with almost all battles, especially ones of this size, the results were horrific. Civilians had been burned out of their homes along the English line of march, part of efforts to starve and disrupt the Bavarians enough that the Bavarian ruler would back out of the alliance with France. Wounded men burned to death in cottages in one of the villages. Men and horses died by the thousands. The results . . . are as Southey describes. The Thirty Years War would have been only three generations past, and the memories were refreshed by the War of the Spanish Succession. Early Modern armies were worse than locusts, floods, and fires combined. They carried waste, destruction, and plague with them, no matter how careful the commanders might be.
There are worse things than war. Not for the poor people caught between the armies, or those who starved because the Anglo-Dutch and Imperials burned their crops and devoured their livestock, no. But had Louis XIV captured Vienna . . . I really do not care to imagine Europe remade in Louis’ image, thank you. I give him about 90% of the blame for the messes he got into. He sent his armies into the field for his own personal glory, since that would reflect on France, and he was France, at least in his own mind. Louis is one of my least favorite historical characters and always has been.
I also have a very soft spot for Prinz Eugen von Savoy. It’s hard not to admire someone who managed to accomplish everything he pulled off, especially someone who does it on a Habsburg budget! And I can sympathize with the grudge he carried against Louis XIV. I admire Marlborough as well, for different reasons. Emperor Leopold I . . . played into Louis’ hands, and they were fighting over Spain. More precisely, which one would end up with offspring on the throne of Spain. No one asked the Spanish, of course. Leopold is also the one who bailed on Vienna in 1683 when the Ottomans came knocking on the door. Granted, he had a reason, but I’m not really a fan. He was pretty average as Habsburgs go, from what I can tell.
So, was the battle a waste and all for nothing, as Southey’s poem implies? If you were a Bavarian citizen, probably. In terms of stopping Louis XIV and blunting the Franco-Bavarian threat, it was critical. For the average trooper on any side, well, it was another battle, a chance for loot, perhaps, and one collision in a long war. The English were all volunteers, some of whom I have no doubt were “voluntold” by judges, relatives, or others that the man really needed to go fight on the Continent or Else. Others were German mercenaries, conscripts, volunteers, and who knows what.
Blenheim, looking back from a high historical vantage point, was important for a lot of people. But it didn’t make things better for anyone, aside perhaps from the people in Vienna who did not face another siege. That’s the problem with dynastic wars. You don’t really have a hero or villain, not like in WWII or Korea. I root for the Imperials just because I detest Louis XIV. Well, that and because of their commander.
Indeed, it was a famous victory.
*I had the chance to visit the battlefield, but opted not to because the people with me were not interested. I regret that a little.